“The King of Little Italy”: Murder of Angelo Ferrari 1922

Murder Victim

Angelo Ferrari
“The King of Little Italy”
35-year-old Bail Bondsman
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Black Hand Vendetta

Murder Scene and Date

1066 42nd Street
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
February 26, 1922


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

When Angelo Ferrari was 14-years-old, he left Italy to live in Iowa.

He settled in an enclave on Des Moines’s south side known as “Little Italy,” where grocery stores, restaurants, bars, social clubs, and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church catered to those who spoke Italian and observed national customs.

Ferrari came to America with nothing. In Des Moines, he took jobs as a laborer and worked his way up to foreman of the city’s “White Wings,” the snowy-uniformed street cleaners.

Ferrari gained a reputation for standing up for others. In September 1915, he accompanied two White Wings to Police headquarters to file a complaint that a “booze buyer” robbed them. After this, Police Chief Crawford banned him from the station and had him ejected when he returned.

His jobs quickly became less menial; he tended bar and managed a wholesale cigar operation.

Then Ferrari found his calling as bail bondsman in the municipal court. With this job, his income and influence increased dramatically. He became such a forceful and powerful presence among the Italian population that he was known as “The King of Little Italy.”

Ferrari moved from the south side to an upscale house at 1066 42nd Street on the west side of Des Moines. On December 19, 1918, his 23-year-old wife Ida died of pneumonia at their home. By 1922, he was married a second time.

☛ Violent Assassination ☚

from the Davenport Democrat and Leader

On Sunday, February 26, 1922, Ferrari and his wife attended a wedding. When they returned home in the evening, he drove into the garage behind the house and took his wife inside to a front bedroom. He told her he was going out to wipe mud off his car.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Ferrari heard gunshots, as did neighbors who looked out and saw two “short, foreign looking” men running through a vacant lot north of the Ferrari residence.

His wife found Angelo dead on the garage floor, shot through the right temple by a .45 caliber revolver; the rest of his body — according to one newspaper — was “riddled” with bullets.

Eleven hours after Ferrari was murdered, his cousin Isadore M. Luchessi — cashier at the United States Bank — received a phone call saying he “would be the next to die.”

Those who dared talk openly about the murder said threats were made against Ferrari by a man he caused to be arrested for statutory rape. Other friends said he lived for the last eight years with threats connected to a personal feud.

And other rumors swirled. The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported police were seeking a mysterious “woman in red” seen near the murder scene the night of the murder.

Family and friends gathered in the Ferrari home to mourn. The Sioux City Journal described the scene:

“The clan of Ferrari is gathered over the corpse of their dead leader. The women, in pursuance of native custom, keep up a wailing chant of their grief which rises to piercing crescendo and then subsides to a pulsing sob. Their long black hair is unbound as they join the mourning chant. The men apart in another room openly plot vengeance for the slayer of Ferrari.”

☛ Dramatic Send-Off ☚

from Davenport Democrat and Leader

On Wednesday morning, March 1, 500 members of the Italian community escorted Ferrari’s body from his home on 42nd Street to St. Anthony’s Church on Columbus Aveue near the intersection with South Union, where his funeral was conducted by Father McGinnie.

The church was filled to capacity with what one newspaper termed “the Italian colony.” Des Moines Police detectives mingled with the crowd to learn what they could.

By all standards, it was one of the largest funerals — and most dramatic — in the history of the city.

Ferrari’s dramatic funeral was held at St. Anthony’s Church (courtesy Renee Sciachitano).

Women tore their hair and tried to throw themselves onto the flower-covered casket.

At the end of the service, Ferrari’s brother Albert stood before the casket sobbing; he raised his hand above his head and shouted,

“Angelo, as God is my judge, I will avenge you.”

Then he exhorted the congregation, saying that many in Little Italy knew who killed his brother. He swore he would find the killers and turn them over to the police if it took his whole life and shouted:

“I know they were Italians and they shall die.”

Angelo Ferrari was buried that same day in St. Ambrose/Woodland Cemetery in the plot with his first wife, Ida. Below his first name is inscribed “Rest In Peace AF.”

☛ Investigation ☚

photo by Katie Lou

photo by Katie Lou

On Saturday, March 10, Polk County Coroner Guy E. Clift held an inquest that concluded Angelo Ferrari was shot to death by two unknown men.

Sheriff William Robb announced a $500 reward, but no one came forward with tips or clues.

The investigation was stymied by the Italian community’s lack of cooperation; they were silenced both by fear and by sworn allegiance to people who sought vengeance.

According to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, the community knew who killed Ferrari but believed that:

“The working out of an old feud will mean the assassins will die within the coming year.”

☛ Black Hand at Work? ☚

The Black Hand

There was good reason for the silence of the Italian community. Newspapers pinned the crime on the Black Hand, which originated in Naples and was imported to large American cities, including Des Moines, where Italians clustered.

The organization extorted money by sending letters signed with a hand drawn in black and implicitly threatening death, arson, and kidnapping if money was not paid.

The earliest Italian immigrants to Des Moines were from northern Italy and mined coal and built railroads; after 1900, the immigrants were largely from southern Italy.

The Black Hand typically arose in populations from southern Italy, who felt alienated from their northern countrymen through education and dialects and carried on the tradition of death threats towards them for money.

Italian residents of Des Moines lived in fear of the Black Hand or of betraying someone associated with the group. They felt vengeance was better accomplished by individual reprisals rather than through law enforcement.

☛ Related Murders ☚

from Davenport Democrat and Leader

Ferrari was the fourth Italian murdered in recent years; the others were his friends and police believed their deaths were all related to the Black Hand.

While on the way to work on the morning of August 6, 1917, Francis “Frank” Oliverio was shot from behind near the Southwest Fifth Street Bridge and died at a local hospital.

At 6:30 a.m. on July 22, 1919, 40-year-old Dominic Sposeto was shot three times in the face and head at the corner of S.E. Seventh and Hartford streets as he brought a load of vegetables from his truck garden into market.

On the night of March 2, 1921, a resident of Little Italy heard a noise. When he opened his door, 25-year-old Domenico Barretto fell dead at his feet, shot through the heart with a sawed-off shotgun.

And just a little over a year after Barretto’s murder, Angelo Ferrari was shot and killed.

Des Moines Police Officer Tony Sarcone, a Little Italy resident himself, denied the Black Hand operated in Des Moines’s Little Italy, but many thought otherwise.

Without cooperation from a community silenced by fear, denial, and tradition, law enforcement could not solve the murders.

There may be others, but these are the known suspected Black Hand cases in Des Moines in addition to Angelo Ferrari:

  • ☛ To read about the August 6, 1917 murder of Francis “Frank” Oliverio, click here.
  • ☛ To read about the July 22, 1919 murder of Dominic Sposeto, click here.
  • ☛ To read about the March 27, 1921 murder of Domenico Barretto, click here.


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ “2 Italians Shot From Ambush; 1 Dead,” Waterloo Evening Courier, August 6, 1917.
  • ☛ “Alfred [sic] Ferrari Will Avenge Brother’s Death,” Oelwein Daily Register, March 1, 1922.
  • ☛ “Blackhand [sic] Victim at State Capital,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 22, 1919.
  • ☛ “Fear Vendetta Will Cause Another Death in Des Moines Case,” Waterloo Evening Courierm March 29, 1921.
  • ☛ “Ferrari Inquest Due Tomorrow,” Des Moines Capital, March 9, 1922.
  • ☛ “Ferrari Murder Balks The Police,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 28, 1922.
  • ☛ “Ferrari’s Murder Part of Feud Of Long Standing,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 28, 1922.
  • ☛ “In Fear Of Clash In ‘Little Italy,’” Sioux City Journal, February 28, 1922.
  • ☛ “Mrs. Ida Ferrari,” Des Moines Daily News, December 19, 1918
  • ☛ “Search For Mysterious Woman,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 1, 1922.
  • ☛ “In Fear Of Clash In ‘Little Italy,’” Sioux City Journal, February 28, 1922.
  • ☛ Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 30, 1921.
  • ☛ “Italian Gardner Slain, Des Moines News, July 22, 1919.
  • ☛ “Italian Is Victim of Mysterious Murder,” Waterloo Evening Courier, March 2, 1921.
  • ☛ “King of Des Moines’ ‘Little Italy’ Killed by Assassins in Dark,” Waterloo Evening Courier, February 27, 1922.
  • ☛ “‘King of Little Italy’ At Des Moines Slain,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 27, 1922.
  • ☛ “Murder of ‘King Of Little Italy’ Still Mystery, Davenport Democrat and Leader, March 1, 1922.
  • ☛ “No New Evidence In Ferrari Case,” Des Moines Capital, March 12, 1922.
  • ☛ “Rich Iowa Is Slain By Assassins In Des Moines,” Palo Alto Reporter, March 9, 1922.
  • ☛ “Search For Mysterious Woman,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 1, 1922.
  • ☛ “Second Man Is Marked To Die,” Waterloo Evening Courier, March 3, 1922.
  • ☛ “Swears He Will Have Vengeance,” Moville Mail, March 3, 1922.
  • ☛ “Two Italians Shot,” Muscatine Journal, August 6, 1917.
  • ☛ “Vengeance Is Threatened At The Funeral,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, March 3, 1922.
  • ☛ “Vows To Avenge Brother,” Sioux City Journal, March 3, 1922.
  • ☛ “White Wings Foreman Ejected From Station,” Des Moines Daily News, October 3, 1915.

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